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The Story of Asia’s Lions

History, folklore, art and conservation biology blend into a colourful, multi-textured narrative in Divyabhanusinh’s The Story of Asia’s Lions.
The author’s interest (as is evident from the title) is to explore the history of these royal cats in Asia from antiquity to the present day. Large, glossy photographs and reproductions accompany a text that is at once simple and complex, poetic yet factual.

We start in the present in Gir, the last remaining bastion of the Asiatic lion in the continent where a geographic bottleneck has created a population that is genetically identical. A huge leap in time and space and we are transported to the past… in between the pages of ancient literature, the grooves of worn away carvings, the fading brushstrokes of paintings. Daniel is thrown into a cage with lions but saved by God in the Old Testament. Egyptian priests worship their lion gods in temples while their Pharaohs keep them as pets or hunt them for sport.

Assyrian kings prove their prowess and track and kill the beasts while artists paint their glory. In India, drought changes the northern landscape and lions enter the newly-formed scrublands of our tiger country. But as the centuries go by, the king of the jungle falls prey again to Mughal arrows and swords, to the hunting rifles of the British. With passing centuries, the number of lions dwindle all over the continent as people systematically hunt them and destroy their prey base for their own sustenance. It is only at the end of the 19th century that the lions of Gir find some protection from the Nawabs of Junagadh and a handful of members of the Imperial government.

Post-independence begins a different leg of the lion’s journey; it makes its appearance on the postage stamp of our country. Briefly, the lion becomes a celebrity. But how far will our conservation efforts take us, questions the author, in the face of an exploding human population? The Story of Asia’s Lions is a perfect product of Divyabhanusinh’s interest in conservation and history. His previous book, The End of a Trail: The Cheetah in India, 1995, traced the story of the cheetah till its extinction in India and Asia’s lions follows a similar path to its small, remnant population in Gir. Complete with 160 colour and black and white photographs and sources, which range from Persian and Sanskrit to British documentation and art, it draws the reader into the text giving a fascinating glimpse into the past when the present fate of the lion was still being carved.

The Story of Asia’s Lions is at once a tragedy and a story of triumph. It tells the tale of the loss of these great cats, which once roamed vast stretches of the continent but are now cornered in a little piece of India. It is also a celebration of the last remaining lions of Gir who “survive in spite of us.”

Reviewed by Bidisha Basu
By Divyabhanusinh, Published by: Marg Publications, Rs. 1,850

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